Sunday, 28 May 2023

Church Mead parkrun

Amersham is a town which sits within the Chiltern Hills, in Buckinghamshire with a population of around 15,000 people. The earliest records of a settlement here go back to at least Anglo-Saxon times when it would have been known as Agmodesham. Other versions of the town's name have been Elmodesham, Agmondysham, Amytysham and Hagmondesham. The name is said to derive from the Old English term meaning Ealhmunds Village. The early settlement was located within the valley of the River Misbourne and this is the part of the town which is now referred to as being Old Amersham or Amersham Old Town. The modern expansion is based around the railway line which arrived at the end of the 19th century and is known as Amersham-on-the-Hill.

amersham old town

The newer part of town has grown steadily since the turn of the 20th century thanks to its direct rail link into London which has made this a popular commuter town. As the name suggests, this part of town is up on the hill, and most of the buildings date from the 1920's onwards. Some of the houses were created as part of the Metro-Land project which saw surplus land owned by the Metropolitan Railway used for house buildings projects. A few notable buildings are the High & Over House, which is a grade II Listed building which was complete in the 1920's. There was also once an Art Deco theatre/cinema called The Regent, but sadly this was closed in 1962 and demolished to make way for a supermarket soon after.

Old Amersham is centred around its historic High Street, and this part of town contains over 150 Listed Buildings from various periods from pre-Tudor times onwards. It is said that the high street looks very similar to how it would have during the 1700's. The town was once owned by relatives of Sir Francis Drake, and the family still have links to the town. St. Mary's Church, which is the town's oldest building, was founded in 1140AD. The current building was built in the 13th century and it was further enlarged during the 14th and 15th centuries. The church occupies the site of an earlier Norman building of which a few sections still remain. The north side of the church contains the Drake family chapel and their family tomb is located in a vault directly below.

st mary's church / cemetery / church mead

The churchyard is home to some extremely rare tombstones called 'body stones' which have an unusual shape to them. Apparently the only other tombstones of this design can be found in Westerham, Kent. Next to the churchyard is a beautiful remembrance garden containing a war memorial and St Mary's Cemetery is located just beyond this. A notable burial in the cemetery is that of Ruth Ellis. She was convicted of murder and in 1955 became the last woman to be hanged in the United Kingdom. Additionally Church Mead (meadow) is a small, grassy area adjacent to the church and this lends its name to the town's free, weekly, timed 5km event called Church Mead parkrun.

The parkrun has been a feature of the town since 9 April 2022 when the inaugural event was held. I visited the town on 27 May 2023 and took part in event number 59. As I have alluded to above, the town has a train station and this is simply called Amersham Station. It is located within the Amersham-on-the-Hill part of town and is served by national rail trains running on the Chiltern Railways between London's Marylebone Station and Aylesbury, and also by the London Underground's Metropolitan Line. The station actually falls within the London Underground's zone 9, so it is possible to travel using an Oyster card despite being outside London. Once arriving at Amersham the last leg of the journey involves heading down either Station Road towards the Old Town (just over 1 kilometre).


There are also buses that pass through the old town, with the closest bus stops being on the main road near the large Tesco. Driving to the town is of course possible, and the closest car parking option is Amersham Old Town car park which is right next to Church Mead. The car park requires a fee to be paid and this can be done via the payment machine or by using the RingGo app. As an alternative, the High Street to the west of Old Amersham Market Hall is completely free of restrictions, so you can park for free for as long as you like only a few hundred metres away. For cyclists, I don't remember seeing any bicycle racks anywhere in Old Amersham, so it may be a case of looking around for a suitable place to park up. Finally there are public toilet facilities available within Amersham Old Town car park.

The meeting point for the parkrun is on Church Mead, just in front of the cemetery and adjacent to the river. The official course page advises parkrunners not to enter Church Mead via the Memorial Gardens, but instead enter from the car park, but access is also possible via the church yard. Both the first-timers and the main briefings take place here, but a special mention should go to the creative and theatrical presentation of the first-timers briefing on the day I visited. I hear this is a regular feature and it was certainly an interesting way to present it.

barley fields

The main bulk of the course is nestled into a large triangular patch of land which sits in-between the old and new sections of the town, and consists of two mostly-off-road, anti-clockwise laps. I understand it can get pretty muddy at times, so it is predominantly a trail shoe course. It is also hilly and has quite narrow paths. With all that in mind, it's not the most buggy running friendly course, so there is a note for buggy runners to contact the team for advice before visiting. Once the briefings are done, the parkrunners move onto the grassy area on the very edge of the car park to form the start line.

The opening section of the parkrun is likely to be quite congested so it is wise to self-seed appropriately. After weaving along the narrow path through Church Mead, the course crosses the river via the small stone bridge and then follows the cemetery's boundary wall around until reaching the wide open barley fields behind. This point marks the start of the lap. The route continues to follow the boundary of the cemetery, the elevation rising and falling gently until the end of the wall where the path continues alongside the River Misbourne for a short stretch. At the south-eastern tip of the course there's a left-hand turn and the route begins its long journey uphill.

photos of the the amersham martyrs memorial courtesy of richard gower

The off-road path underfoot is embedded with chunks of flint, so care is required at all times. As the path works its way up the hill, there's a moment where the top section of a memorial stone can be seen behind the bushes. The stone is the Amersham Martyrs Memorial and it commemorates the seven residents of Amersham that were burned at the stake in the 1500's. They were Lollards who wanted to reform the Catholic Church, their main demand was to be able to read the bible and worship in English. The uphill slog continues up along this side of the fields until reaching a marshal at the entrance to a wooded area called Parsonage Wood.

The section in the woods begins with a slight dip in elevation, but the uphill theme is resumed shortly after. The surface underfoot continues to be precarious, as along with chunks of flint, there are also tree roots (and over the winter months a fair amount of mud) to deal with. On the day I visited I found that the lighting in the woods made it quite difficult to identify any potential trip hazards up ahead. In fact there was a lady who tripped and fell. The woods are quite beautiful and clearly very old. The highest point of the course is reached at the northern end of the course where it meets the adjacent road, Rectory Hill. After about 200 metres of some flat terrain, the course begins its descent.

parsonage wood

As the course descends there is a gully which runs along the path, which could also be a trip hazard, so watch out for that. The downhill section is shorter than the uphill, which of course means it is steeper. As the course exits the woods, parkrunners are treated to a fantastic view across the valley and onwards towards the hills and fields beyond. The path downhill is part tarmac so it is a sensible idea to stick to the smoother surface and avoid any potential trip hazards. At the bottom of the hill the course reaches the corner with the cemetery and a second, identical, lap begins.

At the end of the second lap, the course follows the cemetery boundary back around towards Church Mead where the finish is found in-between the cemetery and the river. After the finish line there is a small wooden bridge which can be used to cross back onto the main Church Mead grassy area where the barcode scanning takes place. Once all the parkrunners have completed the course and all the signage and marshals have returned, the team heads over to Seasons Cafe for the post-parkrun refreshments and social. They have a wonderful selection of breakfasts, cakes, pastries and drinks.

the view

I recorded the course using my Garmin and the course data can be viewed on Strava. The data was used to create a course fly-by video using the Relive app, and that can be viewed on YouTube.

The results for event 59 were published later that morning and 117 people took part. That is a little higher than the average, which is currently 100.5, but it's also not unusual for the turn out to be in double figures. It's a really nice, scenic, challenging course. I'd like to extend my thanks to all of the volunteers involved in putting the event on and making my visit a very enjoyable one.

finish / church mead

I continued the rest of my morning by exploring the Old Town. St Mary's Church, Old Amersham Market Hall, and The Kings Arms pub are notable buildings which I made sure to see. The Crown Hotel was used as a filming location for a scene in the 1994 film Four Weddings and a Funeral. While on the subject of filming, the town was also used in Midsomer Murders, Sky TV's Midwich Cuckoos, the 1973 Metro-Land documentary and the 1997 Metroland film. Then there was this from Taskmaster which was filmed on Church Mead. Lastly the BBC sitcom Cuckoo has many scenes filmed in town, and there's even a choreographed umbrella dance scene in the Memorial Garden. 

While wandering around I couldn't believe how many locals stopped to talk to me. I think this may be the friendliest town I have ever visited!

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Sunday, 21 May 2023

Thames Path parkrun, Woolwich

Woolwich [Wuul-ij] is a district in the Royal Borough of Greenwich, London. The area's name is thought to indicate that the settlement was orignally a trading place for wool. The Anglo-Saxons called it 'Uuluuich', and they first settled here on the south bank of the River Thames in what is now known as Old Woolwich or Woolwich Central Riverside. The land within the ancient parish of Woolwich extended across the Thames where you will still find a small area called North Woolwich (now part of Newham). The two halves of the ancient parish have been connected by a ferry service since at least 1308 and of course this connection is maintained in the form of the modern-day Woolwich Ferry which came into operation in 1889 and has always been free-of-charge. There is also a foot tunnel which opened in 1912.

The area remained a fairly small settlement in Kent, with likely industries thought to be small-scale shipbuilding and repair, pottery and milling. This all changed when King Henry VIII established a dockyard here called  'Woolwich Dockyard' or 'The King's Yard' in order to begin work on the King's naval fleet. His flagship 'Henry Grace a Dieu' or 'Great Harry', at the time the largest and most powerful warship in the world, was built here along with many other warships. In fact, Great Harry also finished its service at Woolwich in 1553 when it was accidentally destroyed by fire. HMS Beagle which carried Charles Darwin around the world was also built here. The industrial presence was subsequently expanded with the addition of a gun yard and a rope yard.

Gun proving took place locally in an area called The Warren, and this developed into military research, armament and storage establishments. In 1805 these were brought together by King George III and named the Royal Arsenal. The arsenal produced all kinds of weapons and military equipment from small guns, bullets, bombs, through to field guns, mortars, tanks and torpedoes. Gunpowder would have been delivered via barge from the Royal Gunpowder Mills in Waltham Abbey (now home to Gunpowder parkrun). In later years it was even involved in the development of the UK's first nuclear weapon. There were 147 miles of railway tracks laid within the 1,285 acres of grounds which helped move the materials between workshops.

In 1886 munitions workers who worked in the Royal Arsenal formed a football team called Dial Square (named after one of the workshops), but changed their name to Royal Arsenal the following year. In 1891 they became known as Woolwich Arsenal and were the first London football club to turn professional. They moved to north London in 1913 where they are now known simply as Arsenal. The club retains a link to the Royal Arsenal through their crest which still features a cannon. The Royal Arsenal's peak came during the first world war when around 80,000 people were employed on the site which covered 1,285 acres. The history here is so vast that I cannot cover it all here, but if you are interested there is a brilliant website called Royal Arsenal History

The military link with Woolwich has been strong for hundreds of years and in the 18th century large barracks were constructed and these eventually became known as Woolwich Garrison. The dockyard eventually closed down as it was unable to compete with other dockyards which were building the newer ironclad warships. By Victoria times part of the riverside area known as Old Woolwich had become a slum and the worst part of this slum was named the dusthole. It was given that name due to the dust from the coal wharves which had been established. The riverside area also became home to a gas company and a power station. The first and second world wars saw a huge uplift in the production of ordnance, but in times of peace the factories switched production to train carriages and other items like knitting frames. The industrial nature of Old Woolwich continued until the late 20th century when the power station and other industries gradually closed down.

Woolwich has sadly been in the news as a result of terrorism on more than one occasion. Firstly, in 1974, the Provisional IRA detonated a bomb in a local pub, killing two people. Secondly, a soldier, Lee Rigby, based at the Royal Artillery Barracks was murdered by Islamic terrorists in 2013 on his way home to the barracks. Woolwich also has quite an interesting claim to fame, as it became home to the UK's first-ever McDonalds in 1974. While on the subject of retail establishments, I worked in the Woolwich branch of Iceland Frozen Foods during 1999 and 2000. Since the mid-2000s the Old Woolwich area has been undergoing a huge redevelopment project, which really gathered pace when it was announced that Woolwich would be gaining a new train station as part of the Crossrail project (Elizabeth Line).

The redeveloped area contains a mixture of both new and repurposed buildings - many of the new apartment blocks have been named after ships built at the dockyard. There is a very strong sense of its history and as you walk around there are field guns, cannons, historic buildings, steam hammer bases, cannon balls and a statue of The First Duke of Wellington who was Master General of the Ordnance 1818-1827.

It is largely residential but also contains shops, bars, restaurants, gyms and everything else this newly established community could need including a twice-per-month farmers market. There is also the Woolwich Works Creative District which is a cultural hub with spaces for performances, galleries and studios. As of 6 May 2023 it also has its very own free, weekly, timed, 5km event called Thames Path parkrun, Woolwich. The main meeting point for the event is at James Clavell Square (named after the screenwriter, director and World War II veteran and prisoner of war) where there is a bag drop area and the first-timers briefing is held. Fittingly, at the meeting point is a sculpture called 'Assembly' which is intended to represent a group of people coming together.

The meeting point is conveniently located just a stone's throw away from the new Elizabeth Line station, which is simply called Woolwich. However it is not the only station. Just across the road near the main shopping area, you will find Woolwich Arsenal Station and this is served by Southeastern trains that run between central London and Dartford/Gravesend, and also by the Docklands Light Railway (DLR)(only two stops from the London City Airport). The platform of the DLR station was used in fifth Bourne film where it was transformed into Athens metro station. There is a third station called Woolwich Dockyard, this is also served by Southeastern trains but is further away. Woolwich is also served by an abundance of buses, and it also has Woolwich (Royal Arsenal) Pier which is served by the Uber Boat service. Sadly, from what I can see the earliest Saturday boat service doesn't run in time to make it viable for travel to parkrun. However it could provide an interesting post-parkrun journey into central London.

This is one of those venues where public transport is the best way to arrive, but if you do happen to use a vehicle, the car parking options are really well covered on the event's official course page. In summary, there is no on-street visitor parking within the new developments. The remaining options are the New Warren Lane car park, Cannon Square car park or one of the other town centre car parks, and these would all incur a charge. For some free parking the Woolwich branch of Tesco apparently allows up to three hours free-of-charge (accessible from Woolwich New Road). If you look carefully you may even find some restriction-free on-street parking further along the riverside to the east. Should cycling be of interest, this venue has great links via the Thames Path, which is a designated cycle route, going both East and West, plus the Woolwich foot tunnel (open 24 hours, but bikes must be pushed through) makes it really easy to access from the other side of the river. There are bicycle racks right next to the pier. For anyone travelling from further afield who may require an overnight stay, there is a Premier Inn within the new development and a Travelodge across the road within the main shopping street.

Pre-parkrun public toilet facilities can be found just across the main road on Beresford Square, which has been home to Woolwich's main market since the 1600s. You'll pass them on the way to the meeting point if you arrive on the DLR or Mainline Rail. Alternatively there's always the UK's first branch of McDonalds on Powis Street or the large Tesco on Woolwich New Road. As the name of this event suggests, this parkrun takes place on the Thames Path. The majority of the Thames Path is part of the Thames Path National Trail, which runs from Trewsbury Mead in the Cotswolds all the way to the Woolwich Ferry. The section which the parkrun uses is an extension, which, in total, runs all the way through to Crayford so is not part of the National Trail. An interesting fact is that it forms part of the brand new King Charles III England Coast Path - South East.

The parkrun itself starts about 400 metres to the east of the meeting point, just next to the remains of a historical landmark called T-Jetty and just on the other side of what I believe may be part of the entrance to one of the old dry docks. The main briefing takes place here. The course is a single out-and-back but with a nice surprise at the far end, but we'll come to that later. Underfoot is mostly tarmac, but there are also sections where the path changes to a rougher, looser gravelly surface. However this is definitely a course for road shoes at all times of year. There's a special note regarding buggy running, and that is that while regular single width buggies are fine, double-width buggies are not suitable for this course.

The usage of the River Thames has historically been quite different depending on the location. The further west you travel, the more genteel it becomes. This part of the river is on the eastern side of London, so it would have been, and still is, more of a working river. To that effect, the pathways and surroundings are harsher, than you will find, say, on the Thames Path at Richmond or Oxford. You certainly won't spot anybody punting on the river in Woolwich! The parkrun starts next to the T-Jetty and very soon after passes the J-Jetty; both remnants of the area's previous life as the Royal Arsenal. The parkrunners keep to the left at all times, there are also points where the path is divided into lower and upper sections. On the way out the course sticks to the lower path which is the one closest to the riverside.

The opening section is a fixed width which has a safety railing on the left and some small bushes and the retaining wall for the upper path on the right, so there could be some congestion to start with, especially on a busy day. After a short stretch the safety railing ends and is replaced by a brutalist concrete riverside wall on both sides of the path. You can't see it from the parkrun course on the way out, but a water channel runs under the footpath. This was the entry point for the canal system (built 1812-14) that was used to deliver supplies to the Royal Arsenal. The Grade II Listed Broadwater Lock and Swing Bridge are located in this area. The swing bridge was installed in 1876 to allow the site's railway line to cross the canal. The Lock and Bridge have recently been renovated, but there is a risk that housing developments could see the remaining section of the historic canal filled in.

Continuing on the outward-bound stretch the brutalist riverside wall concrete ends and is replaced by some trees and bushes. At the same time there is a gate to pass through and the surface underfoot changes to the gravelly surface. It's not exactly like what you'll encounter at the other end of the Thames, but the path meanders along nicely through the tree cover. If you keep your eyes peeled you may be able to spot an old wooden slipway, again this was once part of the Royal Arsenal. By this point the route has taken the parkrunners into West Thamesmead where the course now leaves the Thames Path and at 1.3 kilometres turns right into Gallions Reach Park via a gate which has a width restriction. Incidentally at this point, the course is directly in line with the end of the London City Airport runway, which is just across the river. Every now and then you may hear and see a place taking off.

Gallions Reach Park is a relatively new addition to the local area, but the land was also part of the Royal Arsenal and there are still remnants of its past hidden deep within the bushes. The extended area contains a range of wildlife habitats including scrub, wildflowers, grassland, and woodland. My preconceptions about Thamesmead led me to assume that the park would be a little rough around the edges, but what I found was the complete opposite. The gloriously sunny morning probably helped, but this park was beautifully manicured with lush green grass and neatly spaced trees lining the path. Such a lovely spot to parkrun through.

The name comes from the Galyons family who owned large amounts of property on both sides of the river during the 14th century. This whole section of river 'Gallions Reach' is named after them. You'll also find many references to the name across in East London. The parkrun course only passes through a very small section of this area, but it is beautifully landscaped and covers 40% of the total percentage of the 5 kilometre course.

The path meanders around to this venue's pièce de résistance, called Gallions Reach Hill, but I understand the local West Thamesmead residents call it Teletubby Hill. It is one of six artificial mounds present within the park, which were created from left-over building materials when the local housing was constructed, then landscaped into these quirky features. So, in case you were not already aware, the course goes up to the summit of the largest mound where the parkrunners loop around a marshal and then head back down.

The path winds its way around the hill creating a spiral shape to this part of the course. From the base to the top is around 500 metres, so in total you spend a full kilometre on the hill. The top features a 360 degree view where can see the Barking Creek Flood Barrier to the north. To the east, the Crossness Sewage Treatment Works, and also the tower blocks overlooking Southmere Lake, constructed in the 1960s and was used as a filming location for the TV series Misfits and also for the film A Clockwork Orange. HMP Belmarsh is to the south with Shooters Hill in the far distance. Finally, you can see Canary Wharf by looking to the west.

With the hill out of the way, the course heads back towards the riverside and then onwards towards Woolwich. The return journey takes place on the upper section of the Thames Path which is a hard surface, and mostly paved, underfoot. It is split into a people-path and a cycle-path, so take care not to wander into the bike lane. It continues all the way back past the lock (where this time the swing bridge is visible), the jetties, the start area, and then the circular shaped building with a turquoise roof - I understand this is a ventilation shaft for the DLR which runs under the river into east London. The course then continues back to the original meeting point at James Clavell Square where the finish can be found. The barcode scanning takes place here and the official post-event refreshments can be had right next to the finish line in the cafe within Woolwich Works. If you don't fancy that, there are other cafes dotted around the immediate area. You could also pop over to the main Woolwich central shopping area where there is a Wetherspoons pub called The Great Harry or a wide selection of almost all the familiar high street coffee shops and fast food outlets.

I did of course record the parkrun course with my Garmin so you can check the course out in detail by viewing the data on my Strava account or you can watch the Relive course fly-by video which is on YouTube. The results were processed and published online a short while after. At time of writing the amount of participants is being heavily skewed by the high number of curious locals and parkrun tourists, so the average is higher than it will eventually be. Saying that, the section of the course that goes up the mound has very quickly become one of those quirky details that people just love, so I suspect that it will permanently continue to draw people to this event for many years.

After the parkrun we explored the area and found so many details and references to the area's past. There were a lot more original buildings than I was expecting and we also found more old cannons including some from Germany, France and Egypt (made in 1530) dotted all around. We also went back to see the swing bridge and lock in more detail, before finally heading back over to Gallions Reach Park where we went back up to the top of the mound to fully take in the view. Despite living only 15 minutes down the road, we had never considered spending time in Woolwich, but having the parkrun here has really opened my eyes to what an amazing history this place has. You can also walk along the Thames Path past the Woolwich Ferry and if you carry on walking you can see the Thames Barrier up close. Finally, I'd like to extend a massive thank you to all of the volunteers.

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Sunday, 14 May 2023

Old Deer Park parkrun

Old Deer Park is an area of green space beside the River Thames in Richmond, in the London Borough of Richmond Upon Thames. It forms part of a chain of separate green spaces which include the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, and the grounds of Syon House which sits on the opposite bank of the river. The total area of Old Deer Park covers 360 acres of which 220 acres are leased for private sports use and the remaining 140 acres are open to the public.

The area that is now Richmond was previously called Shene and this came from the Royal Manor of Shene, which itself used to be part of the Royal Manor of Kingston. There has been a manor at Shene since about 1125. Please note that the Shene mentioned here is not the same as the modern day district of Sheen which is just to the east. Various royals lived in the manor house throughout the years, and in around 1360 the manor house was improved by Edward III and became Shene Palace. The English poet and author, Geoffrey Chaucer served in the palace as a yeoman at this time.

1383 saw Richard II became the first monarch to make the palace his main residence. However his wife, Anne of Bohemia died from plague at the palace a few years later. It seems that the distraught King then abandoned the palace where it was defaced and became a ruin or was demolished (information varies). Henry V was the next monarch to become involved in the palace. He had it rebuilt in 1414. In the same year Henry V also founded a Carthusian Monastery, called Shene Priory, and this stood within what is now one of the private sports areas of Old Deer Park.

The next big change came in 1497 when Shene Palace was destroyed by fire. The palace was occupied by a large number of the royal family at the time and most, including the 6-year-old future King Henry VIII, only just made it out alive. This led to Henry VII building a brand new palace, and the king decided to name it after his former title, Earl of Richmond, whose seat was Richmond Castle in Yorkshire. This of course meant that the area became the Royal Manor of Richmond. The palace would eventually be given to Anne of Cleves as part of her marriage annulment settlement with Henry VIII. In 1539 the Dissolution of the Monasteries Act meant that Shene Priory was closed down.

To the north of the palace, Old Deer Park was originally known as Newe Parke of Shene and during the 16th century was a favoured deer hunting spot for Queen Elizabeth I. Incidentally, Elizabeth I's godson, John Harington, invented the flushing lavatory, and the palace was one of the first buildings to have one installed. Elizabeth I died at Richmond Palace in 1603 and the parkland was formally made a Royal hunting ground by her succesor James I. King Charles I, who also enjoyed hunting deer, created a larger hunting ground, called King's New Park, in 1637 and this led to the original Newe Parke being renamed as the Old Deer Park. The King's New Park is now called Richmond Park, the largest of London's royal parks. After Charles I was executed, Richmond Palace was slowly demolished with the stones being used as building materials elsewhere. It was never rebuilt.

The royal connection with the land remained strong and a house within the boundaries of Old Deer Park called Richmond Lodge became the summer countryside residence of King George II. It then passed to King George III who had an interest in astronomy. He had an observatory (The King's Observatory) built in the park and this building went on to become a centre where scientific instruments, watches, barometers, thermometers etc, were tested for accuracy. This function passed to National Physical Laboratory (in Bushy Park) in 1910. It was also used to set Standard London Time before the responsibility passed over the Greenwich. The building is now Grade I Listed and is currently a private residence.

The parkland is still owned by the Crown and has been split-up into areas with different uses. Since 1892 the largest portion has been occupied by Royal Mid-Surrey Golf Club, which has two 18-hole golf courses. The foundations of Shene Priory are apparently located under the fairway of the 14th hole of the outer golf course. The rest of the park consists of various sports clubs (rugby, cricket, tennis, archery) which are based within another private area. The far southern area contains the 140 acres that are open to the public. This space is quite open and is used for sports and other community related activities. It is bordered by the Thames, the golf club, and the busy Twickenham Road. It is also the home to a Grade II Listed swimming pool, originally known as Richmond Baths but now called Pools on the Park.

In August 2010 the parkland became home to Old Deer Park parkrun, which is a free, weekly, timed, 5km event open to all abilities. I first visited Old Deer Park in January 2013 to take part in the event, and it turned out to be a very cold and wintery experience with the course covered in snow. I did however receive the warmest welcome I could hope for and I was even being cheered on by name throughout the event despite it being my first visit. Fast-forward to May 2023 and I finally returned to see what the park looked like without its winter coat on.

Travel options to reach the venue are pretty good. In 2013 I took the main nation rail train from Waterloo to Richmond Station, this station is also served by the London Overground and the London Underground. The onward walk is only around 500 metres. There are also a number of buses that serve the area. Cyclists can secure their bikes to the cycle racks in the park near the playground or at the swimming pool, or just use the wooden fence near the meeting point.

Please note that drivers are asked to not use the swimming pool car park, but to instead use the park's official parking area just on the other side of Twickenham Road. It is connected to the park by a footbridge and holds 285 cars. Parking fees are on the high side (Richmond Council's information page), but won't break the bank unless you're staying for an extended period. Payment can be made at the machine, by phone or via the RingGo app. An option for some free parking that has been brought to my attention is to park on the opposite side of the the River Thames (Ranelagh Drive) and use the pedestrian crossing over Richmond Lock and Weir to reach the park, which can be accessed from the Thames Path. Toilet facilities are available to parkrunners inside the swimming pool building (just tell the staff at the counter that you are taking part in the parkrun and they'll let you through).

The parkrun meeting point can be found just behind the swimming pool on the grass at the eastern side of Old Deer Park. The briefings take place in this area and everybody then walks across to the start area which is next to the tennis courts. The course is almost completely flat and takes place over a clockwise three-and-a-bit lap course which almost exclusively features grass underfoot. There is just one short section on a tarmac path each lap. It is worth bearing in mind that the park is used as a flood plain due to it being low lying and adjacent to the river, so its not uncommon for it to hold onto some water. Shoe choice will come down to personal preference, but I would go for trails in the winter or after wet weather. Buggy running is fine here, but please note that dogs are not permitted at this event.

The parkrun starts at 9am and the route is very simple to follow, as signage is present all around the course. The signage is made up of arrows at some points and elsewhere you will find permanent, wooden course marker posts. It is broadly speaking rectangular in shape with each lap being almost exactly one mile in length. The only real features to look out for around the course are the three obelisks that stand on the western side of the park. These were put in place as meridian markers to assist with King George III's observation of the 1769 transit of Venus from The King's Observatory. There is apparently an intentional gap in the trees, which has been created to maintain the observatory's historic sight lines. I tried to spot the observatory, but I just couldn't see it.

At the end of the three laps, there is of course a finish funnel to enter and this is located back at the original meeting/briefing point. Barcode scanning takes place at the end of the funnel. The post-event refreshments are held in the swimming pool cafe.

After the parkrun and a visit to the playground, we went off to explore the centre of Richmond. The famous and iconic Richmond Green and the adjoining quaint streets are only a stone's throw away. This spot is a must-visit location for fans of the TV show Ted Lasso, as many of its scenes are filmed around the green. Richmond Green has also been used in The Sandman Netflix series. Richmond itself has also been a filming location for National Treasure: Book of Secrets, Finding Neverland, A Fish Called Wanda, The Young Victoria, Bedazzled, and many other films.

There are also some sections of the Richmond Palace complex which have survived, so that's also another place we visited. The foundations of the palace are buried under the garden of Trumpeter's House and there was an episode of Time Team (series 5, episode 1) in which these were investigated. Richmond has a museum in the Old Town Hall (free entry) which contains a model of Henry VII's rebuilt palace, however on the day we visited the museum was closed as the staff were manning a stall at an event. so I sadly didn't get to see it. The Thames Path also provided us with a beautiful location for a walk along the river.

While we were exploring, our parkrun results had been processed and published online. There had been 158 participants at event number 580. The current average number for this event is around 140 or so during the good weather, but it can drop down to under a hundred during the winter. It's also worth noting that there is an alternative course (3 laps) which is sometimes used. My understanding is that the main reason for switching is usually when a circus or fairground is in town. When the alternative course is being used, the meeting point and finish shift over to the start area. The GPS data and Relive course fly-by videos of both courses can be viewed via the links below.

The volunteers and other regulars had made us feel so welcome, so a very big thank you goes out to everyone involved with the event for that.

Related Links:

My GPS data (May 2023)

The London parkruns (blog7t page)

Sunday, 30 April 2023

Beckton parkrun

Historically the area that we now know as Beckton, East London, was known as East Ham Levels. It was for most of its history uninhabited marshland alongside the River Thames. The first development in the area came following an outbreak of cholera (1853) followed by the Great Stink (1858) in London. The city was growing and London's drains were not designed to cope with the increasingly popular 'flushing toilet'. So in 1864 the Northern Outfall Sewer was constructed. This used gravity to direct sewage from London through to Beckton where the sewage was deposited in the River Thames. This of course polluted the river, and from c.1889 the decision was made to treat the sewage before releasing it via Beckton Sewage Works. It is still in operation and the sewage works is currently the largest in the country and the 7th largest in Europe.

In 1868 the Gas Light and Coke Company began construction of a gas works on the land adjacent to the sewage works. This was built to extract gas from coal, and the plant also processed the waste products into a whole host of other products including fertilisers, dyes and creosote. The plant covered an area of around 500 acres and was given the name Beckton after the name of the company's governor Simon Adams Beck. An area to the west of the plant was developed into housing for workers and this became New Beckton. Much of the adjoining land was used as allotments for the local residents. During the Second World War, part of the marshland was used an a Prisoner of War camp. By 1949 it was the largest gas works in the world, and continued to operate until the mid-seventies when it could no longer compete with the cheaper North Sea Gas and closed down for good.

The now disused gas works was used on a few occasions as a filming set. Notably for Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, the James Bond movie For Your Eyes Only, and Nineteen-Eighty-Four based on George Orwell's book. It was also used as a set for music videos including The Smiths' 'The Queen is Dead' and Oasis' 'D'you Know What I Mean?'. The next phase of Beckton's development came as part of the London Docklands project. Much of the land of the former gas works has been repurposed as large retail and business parks largely known as Gallions Reach, plus new housing has been built. Some of the gas containers are still standing.

The toxic waste material from the site was piled high and after closure this posed a health risk. The solution was to cover the huge slag pile with soil, around half a metre in depth, to seal the hazardous material inside. It is said that the soil used to achieve this came from the construction of the basement of the British Library's building over at St Pancras. In the mid-eighties the huge mountain of toxic waste (known locally as Beckton Alps) became home to a dry ski slope, and this was in operation through until the early-2000s when it closed for refurbishments, but never re-opened. Part of the site has now been designated as a site of nature conservation interest, while some parts remain closed for safety reasons.

Some of the former marshland and allotments in-between the new housing has now been developed into a series of parks in the west of Beckton and into the adjacent ward of Custom House. These open spaces consisted of King George V Playing Fields, Beckton City Farm, New Beckton Park, Beckton District Park (North) and Beckton District Park (South). Sadly Beckton City Farm closed during the Covid-19 lockdown and never re-opened, the final nail being a council vote in 2022 which confirmed its permanent closure. We were lucky enough to have visited the farm back in 2013 during our first visit to the area, which was of course the visit Beckton parkrun.

The parkrun takes place within the southern part of Beckton District Park (South) and the meeting point for the event is outside the Will Thorne Pavilion (very distinctive building with pyramid-shaped roof features). The pavilion is named after Will Thorne who was a local resident. He worked at Beckton gas works and eventually went on to become a Labour MP. He was one of the founding members of the National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers (now GMB). The adjacent car park also bears his name and this is accessed from Stanstead Road. If visiting on a weekend there is no charge to park here. There is a different arrangement between Monday and Friday.

Public transport travel options to reach the venue are limited but still sufficient. The best option is to use the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) and alight at Royal Albert Station which is about 600 metres away from the meeting point. If you fancy a slightly longer walk, Beckton Park DLR Station can also be used and is about 1km away. The closest mainline and underground stations are too far away to be considered as viable options. The 376 bus stops on Stansfield Road, right next to the meeting point. There is also a number 300 service and this stops a little further away. There are toilets (not open to the general public) located in the pavilion which are opened when the run director arrives.

Beckton District Park (South) is split into two by the pavilion and the car park; on one side there is an undulating section featuring wildflower meadows and woodland which is used for nature conservation. The other part contains a a small pond, a playground, and some large open grass areas which are used for sports pitches (mostly football).The parkrun takes place over a flat, two lap, anti-clockwise, multi-terrain course. The surfaces underfoot are split between grass/mud and tarmac/brick paths. The course is fine for those wishing to take part with a running buggy, although the grass sections may be a little more challenging during wetter periods. You can see the course in more detail by looking at my GPS data or in this fly-by video.

The briefings, especially the first timers one, are the most intimate and detailed you will find at any parkrun. They take place just outside the pavilion, and the start is just on the main path next to the playground. The two laps are not identical, but the differences occur towards the end of each lap. The first part of the course is on the tarmac path that runs adjacent to Stansfield Road, but this changes to grass after a couple of hundred metres when the route passes around the perimeter of the first sports fields at the far southern end of the park. The off-road theme continues as it passes through a gap in the treeline and into a second, smaller, sports field where again the route again follows its perimeter. The grass sections are very well marked with arrows and small flags. The surface underfoot changes back to tarmac upon reaching the south eastern tip of the course.

The tarmac path, which sometimes has quite a pronounced camber, leads the participants around to an out-and-back section. This takes place on a perfectly straight pathway called the Beckton Corridor. It once formed part of the railway line that ran to the original Beckton railway station which was located within the Beckton Gas Works. In total the gas works apparently contained 77 miles of track within its boundaries. It operated as both freight and passenger line until 1940 when bombing from the blitz temporarily cut the Beckton branch off from the main line. Post-war the line reopened, but only to freight trains. It closed for good in 1970.

The turnaround point is at the tall black post about halfway along the path - it has a turnaround sign on it (see photo below). The end of the out-and-back is where the two laps differ. On the first lap the course goes around the edge of the pond area, partly on a woodland-style path, before joining another path which leads back towards the pavilion.

The second lap starts by passing the playground and then rejoins the original lap. When reaching the pond at the end of the out-and-back section on the second lap, the course continues straight on and passes through the park's central avenue of trees, which is very pleasant indeed. The very last thing to do is a sharp right hand turn at the end of the avenue onto the grass where a cone-lined zig-zag takes the participants into the finish, which is outside the playground and pavilion.

Barcodes and finish tokens are scanned back outside the pavilion. As there is no cafe at this venue, but the team actually organise their own tea, coffee and water. You may even find some biscuits or cakes on the table too.

Beckton parkrun is quite famous for being one of London's smallest events and I'm pretty sure that it may even be the capital's smallest. As of April 2023, the average number of attendees was 48.5. When I first visited in November 2013 (event 76) there were 19 participants and on our second visit in April 2023 (event 502) there were 65.

The run director pointed out to me that a large percentage of the participants each week are first-timers or tourists and out of the 65 present at event number 502, 25 were first-timers (38%). So on an average week, it is safe to expect somewhere in the region of 40-70 participants. However due to the event's close proximity to the ExCel Centre, the numbers do increase on the weekend of the London Marathon (but nothing like the increase seen by their neighbour Victoria Dock parkrun (blog7t write-up)).

So with the parkrun done and dusted we would have really liked to repeat our 2013 visit to Beckton City Farm, but sadly, as I mentioned above, it has now been permanently closed. Our post-parkrun activities this time consisted of some time exploring the pond area of the park which features lots of bird boxes, wooden benches and other quirky arty things. We also managed to see the pond's resident ducks and terrapins.

We then headed over to Royal Albert Dock where we spent a good hour watching planes land and take-off from London City Airport. Our morning out in Beckton had been brilliant, and a big part of that was the fantastic welcome we received from the amazing team at Beckton parkrun. It is often said that parkrun is a family and this event just captures the essence of that perfectly. Thank you so much for having us.

Related links:

The course GPS data (29 April 2023)
The course fly-by video (29 April 2023)

Monday, 17 April 2023

Wimbledon Common parkrun

Wimbledon is a district in the London Borough of Merton, with a population of around 70,000 people. It was recorded as Wimbedounyng in 967 when the original settlement centered on the area that is now Wimbledon Village. The name is said to mean Wynnman's Hill. The area is most well known for its tennis championships which are the oldest and most prestigious in the world. The competition, which has been held since 1877, takes place every July and brings around half-a-million visitors into Wimbledon over its two-week duration.

Elsewhere in sports, Wimbledon Football Club enjoyed huge success in the 1980s when they went from the old English fourth division through the the old English 1st division in 4 years. They also won the FA Cup in 1986 (I saw them play at Wembley in the 1986 Charity Shield against Liverpool). Wimbledon Stadium was a greyhound racing venue, which also hosted Speedway events and Stock Car Racing. The stadium was also used for the music video for Queen's 1978 song Bicycle Race. It is also home to a couple of theatres. New Wimbledon Theatre opened in 1910 and is unique in that it is the only theatre in Britain to have a Victorian-style Turkish Bath in its basement. It has hosted performances by many well known people including Ivor Novello, Noel Coward, Marlene Dietrich and, Laurel and Hardy. The second is called Polka, and it is the UK's first theatre dedicated to children. 

Wimbledon was part of the Manor of Mortlake at the time of the Domesday Book, but went on to become a manor in its own right. There have been a number of houses associated with the Manor of Wimbledon, but the first was The Old Rectory which was built in the early 1500's and over the years has been owned by King Henry VIII who gave it to Catherine Parr, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth I. In more recent times it was owned by Brian May, lead guitarist in the rock band Queen. It is the oldest inhabited building in Wimbledon which, from what I can see, was last sold for £17.5 million in 2013. It is apparently the area's most expensive house.

Wimbledon also once had a palace which was said to rival the grandeur of Henry VIII's Nonsuch Palace. It stood near to The Old Rectory, but dwarfed it in size. It had large terraces with grand staircases leading up to the palace itself. It survived until around 1720 when it was demolished. The immediate area is now Wimbledon Village which I understand is the most desirable part of Wimbledon to live in. It has a quaint village feel with a selection of boutique shops. The houses, cottages, and mansions are generally valued between £2 million and £10 million.

The earliest known settlement in Wimbledon was an iron age hill fort (the second largest in London), and this was located on what is now Wimbledon Common. The location of the hill fort is marked on maps as Caesar's Camp and is located towards the south of the common, near (or within) the Royal Wimbledon Golf Club. Just to the north of the fort is Caesar's Well, this is a natural spring which is thought may have been in use since the Neolithic period. Wimbledon Common is part of a larger expanse of common land which also includes Putney Heath / Common and, further to the north, Putney Lower Common. They are managed under the joint name of Wimbledon and Putney Commons.

The common has a feature which many would not expect to see in London, a windmill. It is simply known as Wimbledon Windmill. It was constructed in c.1816. In 1864 the Lord of the Manor, Earl Spencer, attempted to gain permission to enclose the common to build a new house and grounds in one part, and to sell off another part for other developments. At the same time, the miller was evicted from the windmill as this was the site the Earl had in mind for his new manor house. The miller stripped the windmill of its working parts when he left. Fortunately permission to enclose the land was refused and the land was preserved. The windmill was repurposed as residential accommodation. It has been restored several times over the years, and became a museum in 1975.

Wimbledon and Putney Commons are one of the largest areas of common land in London and cover 1,140 acres. The commons are designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and Special Area of Conservation. They contain particularly important areas of bog land and mature woodland. It also provides ideal conditions for wildlife including the Stag Beetle. By far the most famous of Wimbledon Common's wildlife are the Wombles. These are furry creatures with a pointy nose that live in burrows. They are known for collecting and recycling things that the everyday folks leave behind. They are also organised, work as a team, tidy and clean.

In January 2007 Wimbledon Common became home to a free, weekly, timed, 5km event called Wimbledon Common Time Trial. In 2008 the Time Trial suffix was dropped and replaced with the much more inclusive name of parkrun, where it of course became Wimbledon Common parkrun. At the time of its inaugural the only other parkrun event in existence was the one and only Bushy parkrun (blog) (then known as Bushy Park Time Trial), so the creation of this event marked the first step in parkrun's expansion outside of its original home.

My first visit to this event was in August 2013 and I travelled by bicycle from Westminster. There are plenty of bicycle racks in the main car parking area, which is next to the windmill. However due to the large number of people using bicycles, the racks do tend to end up used to their full capacity. Driving to the event is generally discouraged as the Windmill car park can become overwhelmed (for the record, it isn't tiny. At a rough count it must be able to hold a couple of hundred vehicles). If you have to drive, there are three other official car parks on the commons, but they are a bit further away. The car park has a voluntary car park donation scheme in operation, so there is no fixed fee for parking here.

If travelling by public transport, the closest train station is Wimbledon (served by mainline rail and the District Line) but please be aware that it is almost 3 kilometres away. Other options are to use the District Line on the underground and alight at Southfields or Wimbledon Park. However neither of those actually make the walk to the common much shorter. As far as buses are concerned, the service that gets the closest to the parkrun is the 93 which runs between Putney and Sutton. There are other buses that stop a little further away, such as the 85, 265 and 969 which all stop outside Putney Vale Cemetery, which is adjacent to the common.

The parkrun meeting point is just next to the Windmill car park, and there are also toilets here which are advertised as being open from 7am. The briefings take place on the adjacent grass area and the participants then make their way over to the start area, which is a few hundred metres away. An interesting detail is that the entire parkrun appears to take place in the Putney Heath section of the commons rather than on Wimbledon Common, also this part of the commons sits within the adjacent London Borough of Wandsworth. However it does make sense to call it Wimbledon Common as Putney Heath also extends to another area across the main road and could possibly cause confusion as to the exact location.

The route takes place over two-and-a-bit anti-clockwise loops around the northern section of the commons. It is completely flat and features dirt paths underfoot, these dirt paths can turn into a real puddle and mud-fest during the winter and wetter parts of the year, so trail shoes are advisable on this course. There are also areas with protruding stones and tree roots. The course is perfectly fine for those participating with buggies. When I first visited I noted that flour was used to mark the start line and create directional arrows throughout the course, and I was pleased to see that this tradition is still alive. Please note there are no regular directional arrows or other parkrun signage at the venue. I would also note that the official course map is slightly different to the actual course.

The general landscape visible during the parkrun is mostly wooded, but there are a couple of more open heath areas visible at certain points. From the start the course heads back along the path until it reaches the briefing area where a left hand turn means the route joins the Capital Ring path which passes through the common. At the end of this path the course again turns left and follows the path which runs alongside the A219 road which is also known as Wimbledon Park Side. If visiting at wetter times of the year, this is where the first sections of proper mud are found. One of the common's many ponds can be found adjacent to this path - this one is called '7 Post Pond'. The pond was dug to extract gravel and was subsequently used to dip wooden cart wheels to swell and secure them to their rims.

Another left hand turn takes the route towards and past Wimbledon Common's largest lake. This one is called 'Kingsmere'. It is rich in wildlife including fish and features a small island (created from the spoil from dredging) which provides a safe nesting area for many of the water birds that reside here. The paths along here hold onto a lot of water so this is where most of the very large and deep puddles can be found. The course continues with another left hand turn which brings the route back round to the original start area. The lap is then repeated and the finish is found next to the original briefing area.

The course had three marshals during our 2023 visit and they were positioned at the left hand turns. I will note that two of the marshal points had been stood down by the time we went around the second lap, I'm not sure if this was a one-off or if it happens every week. So if you happen to be further back in the field, it is worth being prepared for this. As always I had recorded the GPS data of the course and also converted this into a fly-by video, so they are both available online for information.

The finish token and barcodes are scanned right next to the finish line and the post-event refreshments can be had at the Windmill Tearooms. We didn't go in to sample what they had, but they are an independent business serving tea, coffee, cakes, breakfast and some homemade food dishes that sound delicious. It has been run by the same family since 1969. There are many more areas to explore on the commons plus there are a few war memorials and loads more hidden areas to discover. However my son had made me run through every single puddle so our feet were soaked through. We didn't fancy wandering around with wet feet, so we decided to head off home. If we hadn't headed straight off, I would have liked to have popped into the Wimbledon Windmill Museum, which is free-of-charge but sadly doesn't open until 2pm on Saturdays.

The results were published later that morning and 367 people had taken part in event number 786. Attendances generally hover around the 400 mark so it was around the expected figure.

A final thank you goes to all of the volunteers that put the event on and made us feel welcome.

Related links:

GPS data of the course (15 April 2023)

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